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Riqetka ETan – What Does Incense Reveal About Us?

I first heard of Mr. Ghirmai Abraham, the author of Riqetka ETan, a book of poetry released recently, when I heard his poem, Kilte kienka, hade mukhuan (You become two, you become one), about the peace and harmony in Eritrea recited on Eritrean Television some years ago.

In the poem, which alludes to Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo theology, in which God is taught as a triune, (and manifests himself as one, and three: as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit), Mr. Ghirmai says: “Asmara, innocent like a new-born baby, ties/ The mosque, and the church, into one, with the cord of love” and then he proceeds and asks, “So, do you get jealous Mecca? And, you, Vatican?”

Through the poem, Mr. Ghirmai makes an important statement about Eritrea, represented by Asmara, and the harmony of the two religions (Christianity and Islam) in the country, “whose floor is bedecked with love, and where Eritrea’s children rest”. He notes in Eritrea, unlike in other countries, religion is not used to divide people, and that no wars are fought in the name of Allah or Amlakh (God, in Tigrigna). In what is characteristically his style, he delivers a truth, without delivering a sermon on the issues he discusses: Mr. Ghirmai makes us see what he thinks is a wealth we have not thought of as valuable.

Riqetka ETan is a collection of 87 poems, on love (and with a special emphasis one maternal love and love between a man and a woman), friendship, art, choice and destiny, regret, truth, loneliness, and other issues.

But some issues are treated with special emphasis for he gives them more than a passing treatment. Friendship is not a trivial matter, senior Eritrean citizens are often heard saying. “In our generation, friends made oaths so that they do not forget each other as long as they walked on earth,” they often tell you, if you are a young person, and in their eyes did not take friendship seriously. It looks as if Mr. Ghirmai wants to stress this fact for he writes repeatedly about friendship. Through the poems, he criticizes people who take it very lightly. Through Nfequr Arkey (To My Dear Friend), a man tells his friend to go “ for you cannot escape from the compound of my heart.” Through another, he praises true friendship. In it, a man tells his friend: “My friend, O my friend/ You make me present/ When I am absent/ My friend, my friend, O my friend, You are my all, my friend”.

He writes in similar ways about love. Reading his poems on love, one has the impression that he has so much to say about the subject, but has not said it all despite his attempts to do so. In short, one understands his poems about love as attempts, and not as successful accomplishments despite their beauty. Why write many poems about love if one has said it all (that one wanted to say)?

In one poem, a young man sings of his love, who lives in a neighboring village:

“The fool think, I choose between loves/

He ignores the girls in his village, they sneer at me.

But, it was Love, while I looked after cattle at the meadow/

That slipped her into my heart.”

In another, a misunderstood young man sings of a young woman, who fails to understand him. He wishes “to snatch her heart and drown it into her empty personality”, and give it back after she sees her folly and returns to him.

In a different poem, Mr. Ghirmai writes about a man who ignores “the stars that beg for his love”, but he himself begs from those that do not give. “You look up to the sky,” Mr. Ghirmai tells his readers. “And see millions of stars, but he says, ‘My star’ and is stuck with his only one.”

But it is not only ideas (but also people) that preoccupy Mr. Ghirmai’s imagination. His poems give the poor and, especially, their children special emphasis, and he seems to understand their problems with a special perception, writing with eloquence about their roles in life, their problems, and their pride in poems like Wedi Qonanit and Blay Kidan, Aydeqesun Gena.

Aydeqesun Gena and Ajoka Piccolo remind us Mr. Ghirmai’s his short story, Misgar Wuhuj, (Crossing the River). In it he narrates a young boy’s attempt to help his mother, who struggles to raise her only child, the main character of the story. Through these poems, he comes back and revisits the theme. In Aydeqesun Gena (They are Still worrying), he has us read about some little children who have lost their drunkard father. In Ajoka Piccolo (Don’t Worry, Young Boy), we feel sorry for the little boy, who lost the money he earned by selling cigarettes and other items.

In some cases, Mr. Ghirmai praises the contribution of the working poor, making us see the worth of their labour, and indirectly, makes us proud of our contributions. He helps us see labour (whatever kind it is) is a respectable activity, and that no job we do should make us feel ashamed.

“Light has covered your father’s face

Ask your mother what has happened

Scratching her hair with her finger

She will mention a name, the name of her hairdresser

You are right, you have made no mistake

I am the son of a hairdresser

The son of the woman that dressed your mother in beauty.”

But Mr. Ghirmai doesn’t write like other poets. Without sounding preachy, he takes subjects for religious sermons and makes us see the truth of the heart. In one poem, he makes it clear that forgiveness oils human relationships.

In another, that the living owe so much to the dead who gave their lives so that the living may enjoy theirs.

In most of his poems, he uses words very economically, wasting none unnecessarily. However, it is the use of imagery that sets him different from other Tigrigna poets. In almost every poem, he effectively uses an image that expresses this or that thought. He successfully employs images of the kirar, the star, and of course, the burning incense, which symbolises the highest in us.

It is hard to choose your favourite poem from among the collection. The book is full of enjoyable poetry. You think that you like one better than the others, and then you remember that you enjoyed another poem as equally. You start rereading, if you could find a poem that is more enjoyable than the others. After so many readings, you find out that you have come to no conclusion. If I have to choose, Kondokon (Is It Because) which is about raising children, which is of interest to me as an educator, and of course, Riqetka ETan, which I have translated below:

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